The Slippery Rock University football team continued their historic season with a convincing 51-30 win over Shepherd University at Mihalik-Thompson stadium on Saturday.
The win improves The Rock’s record to 12-0 this season and will appear in their second straight NCAA quarterfinals appearance. Slippery Rock will host Notre Dame (Ohio) on Saturday at 1 p.m. in what will be a rematch of last year’s quarterfinals game.
Though Shepherd’s (10-3) season ended Saturday, head coach Shawn Lutz started off his postgame press conference by crediting head coach Ernie McCook and his Shepherd squad on a hard fought game.
“Everybody during [the playoffs] is a great team and they gave us everything we could handle,” Lutz said. “Hats off to Shepherd and coach McCook.”
After starting off the season 2-2 and enduring several injuries throughout the season, Shepherd was able to win their final seven regular season games, before earning the fifth seed in Super Region One. The Rams then went on the road to face fourth-seeded Indiana (Pa.) for the right to play Slippery Rock the following week. The Rams were then able to play spoiler to a potential SRU/IUP rematch in the second round of the playoffs and upset the Crimson Hawks by a score of 31-28.
Shepherd was then assigned the task of going on the road once again to upend another Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference juggernaut in a rested Slippery Rock team.
Eager to put their offensive prowess on display, The Rock received the ball first and got to work right away. Putting together a 12 play, 84-yard drive, The Green and White steadily marched downfield. With the ball on Shepherd’s 38 yard line, quarterback Roland Rivers III connected with wide receiver Jermaine Wynn Jr. on three consecutive passes, ending with an eight-yard touchdown pass to give The Rock an early 6-0 lead. After just one drive, Wynn had six catches for 63 yards and a touchdown, a stat line that isn’t easy to achieve in an entire game, let alone a single drive.
The Rock would continue to set the tone early by forcing a fumble on Shepherd’s first offensive possession, courtesy of cornerback Tyree Spearman. The Rock would continue to dominate on both sides of the football throughout the first quarter and extended their lead out to 20-0 just a few seconds into the second quarter.
Up three scores at home, it looked as though The Rock would coast to an easy win over Shepherd, but Lutz knew that his team was still in for a battle.
“The difference early in the game was our ability to make plays and get takeaways on defense, but I knew that game wasn’t over,” Lutz said. “That Shepherd team has a lot of fight.”
After Rivers scored on a quarterback draw early in the second quarter to record his third total touchdown, the momentum of the game began to sway heavily in the direction of the Rams. After marching up and down the field on Shepherd, The Rock could only muster a field goal for the rest of the second quarter, while Shepherd put up nine points, to cut Slippery Rock’s lead to 14 at the conclusion of the first half.
Set to receive the ball in the second half, Shepherd took advantage of its opportunity and scored on the opening drive in the second half, to pull within seven points of the top-seeded team in Super Region One. On the following drive, the Slippery Rock crowd watched a promising drive fade away, as The Rock failed to convert on fourth down on Shepherd’s 35 yard line.
At this point in the game, luck was not on the side of The Green and White, as linebacker Shane Schuback forced Shepherd’s running back Deonte Glover to fumble the ball near midfield, only for the ball to bounce directly back into the lap of the Rams running back before he could even break his stride. Glover then rushed the ball for an additional 11 yards, to get the ball down to Slippery Rock’s 31 yard line.
Just a few plays later, Shepherd overcame a holding penalty to score a 38 yard touchdown pass and convert on the extra point attempt to tie the game at 23-23. After seemingly dominating for a majority of the game, The Rock’s 20-0 second quarter lead was now a distant memory.
Despite being outscored 14-0 in a 15-minute span, Lutz maintained a positive outlook and kept the faith in his team to right the ship.
“I was really upbeat and tried to stay cool, calm and collected, I was just being a cheerleader out there no matter what,” Lutz said. “When you’re in those playoff games and you’re playing against good teams, you’re going to have those momentum swings.”
Drawing on the experience from the PSAC championship game against Kutztown, the team had confidence in themselves to make plays and take back the lead because they know they have performed in adverse moments like this before, Lutz said.
Struck with adversity once again late in the third quarter, Lutz and his football team began to remind those in attendance at Mihalik-Thompson stadium as to why they are ranked as the top dog in Super Region One.
The Rock would get the ball back and looked to the connection of Rivers and Wynn for another big play when it was needed most.
Right on cue, Rivers completed a 25-yard pass to Wynn to put Slippery Rock on Shepherd’s 43 yard line.
A false start would then set the Green and White offense back five yards, but it was no difference to the dynamic quarterback/wide receiver duo, as Rivers found Wynn wide open on the right side of the field. Wynn showcased his speed and outran the Rams secondary to score his second touchdown of the day.
A Slippery Rock crowd that had otherwise been quiet for some time, was now rejuvenated and up on their feet. History is said to repeat itself, and once again The Rock came up with a huge play that in hindsight changed the outcome of the game.
Wynn would go on to break the school record for most receptions in a single game with 18, a record that was previously set in 1992 by Greg Hopkins. Wynn’s 18 receptions also tied a Division II playoff record, set by Humboldt State’s Chase Krivashei in 2015.
In addition to his 18 receptions, Wynn totaled 229 receiving yards and two touchdowns increasing his season totals to 83 receptions for 1,233 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Wynn gave his thoughts on how it felt to break the school record and what it means to him.
“[Breaking the record] felt awesome,” Wynn said. “Looking back at high school, being under recruited, not a lot of schools wanted me. Just to be on this stage, to play like that, and to help my team, it felt great.”
Thanks to the long touchdown scored by Wynn and the defense promptly forcing Shepherd to turn the ball over on downs on the next possession, The Rock maintained a 30-23 advantage heading into the fourth quarter.
With a palpable sense of energy in the air before the start of the final quarter, Wynn and his fellow teammates held up four fingers in the air, signaling that the game must be played for a full four quarters and there is still work to be done.
The Rock offense got back to work as Wynn recorded one of his 18 receptions in addition to a personal foul by Shepherd to total a 30 yard gain for SRU. After rushing the ball to the 25 yard line, running back Charles Snorweah put multiple Rams defenders on roller skates as he took a pass from Rivers to the end zone, and just like that, The Rock was up 14 points once again.
The two teams then traded scoring touchdowns on each other, as Shepherd took advantage of a blown coverage to score a quick 67-yard touchdown to pull back within seven points. On the next drive, Snorweah made sure to reestablish that 14 point lead once again as he dodged defenders on his way to a 38-yard rushing touchdown.
Leading 44-30, the Slippery Rock defense was looking to deliver a fatal blow to Shepherd’s season with one final stop. A couple completions and penalties soon had the Rams inside the Slippery Rock 20 yard line and, once again, The Rock’s lead was being threatened to be cut in half.
Shepherd went back to its passing game to try and score once again, but soon after the ball left the hands of Shepherd’s quarterback Tyson Bagent, linebacker Tim Vernick was able to intercept the pass, returning it for 38 yards.
To put the proverbial dagger in Shepherd’s season, Snorweah would go on to score on yet another long touchdown run to put The Rock up 51-30 with just over five minutes left to go in the game.
In a season riddled with nagging injuries, Snorweah saved his best performance of the season for when The Rock needed it most, taking 21 carries for 162 yards and two rushing touchdowns, while also catching two passes for 33 yards and a receiving touchdown.
Taking advantage of a bye week, Snorweah felt as though he was back at full health and was ready to have a big game.
“I told a couple of my teammates this week that I was feeling good and I felt way better than I had in previous games,” Snorweah said. “I felt like this would be the week that I would go out and make plays. I didn’t have a certain amount of yards or certain amount of touchdowns that I wanted to have, but I just knew that when the play was called I would go out there ready to make a play for my team.”
The Rock would go on to capture a 51-30 victory over Shepherd, advancing to the regional finals for the second straight year.
In addition to big days from Wynn and Snorweah, Rivers continued to add to his Harlon Hill campaign, throwing for 416 yards and 4 touchdowns, while adding 40 yards and a rushing touchdown on the ground. A common occurrence this season, Rivers broke two more records, setting the SRU single-season records for total offense (4,449 yards) and passing yards (3,825) that were previously owned by Nigel Barksdale from 2013 (4,199 total, 3,736 passing)
When asked about his quarterback, Lutz made sure to give Rivers the highest praise that he could.
“If Rivers isn’t the Harlon Hill Trophy winner, then I want to know who the better football player is,” Lutz said. “He proves it each and every week. He finds ways to make plays each week whether it’s running, throwing, everything.”
Rivers will have yet another chance to build upon his Harlon Hill trophy campaign on Saturday, as The Rock welcomes in Notre Dame (Ohio) who possesses a Harlon Hill contender of their own in running back Jaleel McLaughlin. McLaughlin is currently the leader across all divisions in college football for rushing yards (2,198) and rushing touchdowns (28).
Kickoff is slated for a 12 p.m. at Mihalik-Thompson stadium.